Life During the Age of Contagion — April and the Link to Mass Murder

James D. Diamond April 6, 2020 Published in  InsideSources

The month of April will be the among the most challenging months in American history. The physical, mental and emotional well-being of the nation is at hope’s edge, as our nation comes to grips with a global pandemic and dire economic consequences. For many mass shooting survivors and their communities, though, April is challenging for another reason: The five days between April 15-20 have been notoriously marked with the intentional spilling of innocent blood.

On April 15, 2013, terrorists killed six and seriously injured 280 in the Boston Marathon attack. April 16, 2007, was the school shooting at Virginia Tech University. On April 19, 1995, a mass murderer killed 168 innocent victims and seriously wounded more than 680 in the Oklahoma City bombing. And on April 20, 1999, there were the murders of 15 at Columbine High School in Colorado. The connection between the April dates is no coincidence.

Sadly, several killers sought to “outdo” the massacres that preceded their carnage and there exists a link between a series of massacres occurring in April, and the selection of massacre dates to coincide with the massacre anniversaries. It starts with April 19, 1993, the date law enforcement officials raided a compound near Waco, Texas, resulting in a lengthy standoff and 86 fatalities. Next, the two terrorists at Oklahoma City who drove a truck-bomb to the Murrah Federal Office Building selected the Waco anniversary; two years later, on April 19, 1995, they conducted a terrorist assault that killed 168 people. Then, with a goal of killing more people than the terrorists did at Oklahoma City, the two school shooters at Columbine High School picked April 19 for their massacre — postponed by an unknown reason to April 20. On April 20, 1999, the two high school boys murdered 15 innocent students and teachers, seriously injuring many more. The tragedy at Columbine, then, took on great importance for several rampagers who followed them. Killers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and Virginia Tech studied and obsessed over Columbine, as did many others.

 

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Anguished students embrace during the rampage at Columbine HS (Photo April 20, 1999 by George Kochaniec Jr Rocky Mountain News)  

How do communities, victims and survivors deal with the aftermath of mass shootings?

In my book, “After the Bloodbath: Is Healing Possible in the Wake of Rampage Shootings?,” I examine the aftermath of mass shootings and compare community and legal responses to responses in indigenous communities, with special attention devoted to restorative and therapeutic justice. I compare the aftermath of several shootings with a fatal massacre that occurred in March 2005 at the Red Lake High School on the reservation of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians in northern Minnesota. For example, at Red Lake, in contrast with other massacres like Newtown, the family of the killer did not have any difficulty finding a place to bury the shooter, and the killer was given a traditional funeral and mourning rituals, which were well attended. Just as in Newtown, at Red Lake, a family member, the shooter’s grandfather, was the first victim, and like Newtown, access to the guns used could be attributed to the family member. Yet, at Red Lake the shooter’s grandfather was counted as a victim and, in contrast to many other rampages, not blamed for the killings. The grandfather was given a hero’s funeral which was very well attended.

What was most remarkable, though, was that the tribe included the killer’s family in distribution of victim compensation funds, helping to pay for his funeral expenses. In Red Lake, parents of victims thought the murderer deserved some recognition from the community so he would not, as a human being, be forgotten. A number victims’ relatives forgave the killer and considered the circumstances preceding the massacre.

There are more than 500 American Indian tribes in the United States and more than 200 tribal court systems. Indigenous peoples have a long history of restorative practices and engage in something called “peacemaking courts,” where they invite in elders, relatives and spiritual leaders and move toward restoring social bonds and healing the frayed social fabric. There are more lessons we can take from how indigenous peoples deal with mass shootings. Parents and family members of mass murderers, typically mourning as well, should be given empathy and, at a minimum, not treated as community pariahs.

While the world struggles in April to deal with the very real public health emergency, community cohesiveness, kindness and empathy are at a premium. The festering wounds associated with the still unresolved public health threat surrounding mass shootings, the linked suicide crisis, and a long list of suffering survivors will be painful throughout the month.

We have a lot to do to heal our planet.

After 15 Years, Red Lake Shooting Survivors Are Still Suffering

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The following National View Column appeared on March 20, 2020 in The Duluth News Tribune 

 

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The Cedar Creek Singers perform in Duluth at a memorial for the victims of the Red Lake school shooting. Photo: Duluth News Tribune, 2005 

by James D. Diamond 

While the world struggles to deal with a very real public health crisis, community cohesiveness, kindness, and empathy are at a premium. There is a complexity to healing, though, and the newest threat does not eliminate those in the community already suffering — many invisibly. The wounds related to the looming public health threat surrounding mass shootings, the linked suicide crisis, and post-traumatic stress still fester.

Saturday, March 21 marks the 15-year anniversary of the school shooting at Red Lake High School on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. Although occurring somewhat sequestered from the public spotlight and amidst an independent indigenous sovereign, in many ways the 2005 rampage resembled other school shootings. A suicidal male student stole his grandfather’s guns, killed his grandfather and his girlfriend, broke into his own school, and shot a teacher and teenagers before taking his own life. Sadly, it has become a common American narrative and pattern.

At Red Lake there were warning signs. There are always warning signs, which, somehow, if heeded, might prevent tragedy. The warning signs at Red Lake, each taken alone 15 years ago, were not so alarming to make him a likely mass shooter. After the fact, though, they painted a very troubling picture. Not uncommon, the shooter at Red Lake was an obviously suicidal teenager crying for help. And, he had access to guns.

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20 Facts About Mass Shootings You May Not Know

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Jeffrey May at his home in Redby, MN on the Red Lake Reservation. 10 years earlier May saved countless students who were being shot by jumping the school shooter who paused to reload.  Photo: Jennifer Simonson, MPR News
  1. NASA Astronaut Mark Kelly saw mistaken TV news reporting that his wife, Gabby Giffords was killed in a mass shooting before he jumped on an airplane from Houston, TX to Tucson, Arizona.
  2. Liviu Librescu lived through a Nazi concentration camp in Romania only to be killed by the school shooter at Virginia Tech.
  3. The Marjory Douglas Parkland High School killer took an Uber to the rampage, packing his AR 15, ammunition and smoke bombs in his bag.
  4. When the UT Austin tower killer tried to take the elevator to the top of the tower to perpetrate the murders, the elevator was not working. He found a campus employee who activated the elevator for him.
  5. A significant number of mass shooters, at least 9 killed a family member first before going on a shooting rampage.
  6. While the school shooter at Red Lake High School, MN paused to reload his rifle, fellow student Jeffrey May tried to stop the attack by jumping the killer with a pencil; he was doing his math homework in study hall before the shooting.
  7. The killers at Columbine High School selected April 20th for their killing because it was Adolph Hitler’s birthday and was the anniversary of the Oklahoma City federal building tragedy.
  8. California woman Hannah Sindaha survived the Las Vegas Rte. 91 concert massacre, then a year later survived the Thousand Oaks barroom massacre. The day after Thousand Oaks she had to evacuate her home due to the Woolsey fire that claimed 3 lives.
  9. The F.B.I. does not have an official definition of a “mass shooting,” but Congress defined a “mass murder,” and changed it in 2013 from an incident with at least four fatalities to one with three.
  10. Mass shooters are male, with very few rare exceptions.
  11. Conspiracy theorists waged a campaign to convince the world the twenty children killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School were not really killed, their coffins were empty, and their grieving parents were actors.
  12. In 1977 Stephen King wrote a novel about a fictitious high school shooting titled “Rage” under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The book became associated with school shootings. Finally, after a copy of the book was found in the locker of Heath High School shooter Michael Carneal, King allowed the book to go out of print.
  13. There are often visible warning signs before a mass shooter acts. In one unusual case, the case of the murders at the AME Church in Charlestown, a friend of the killer was arrested and sent to prison for knowing about the planned spree and failing to take action to prevent it.
  14. The mass killer at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado claimed he picked the midnight showing of Batman movie Dark Knight Rises for his killing, thinking there wouldn’t be children in the theater at that hour. There were. He killed a 6-year-old girl.
  15. Because he was such a prolific gambler the Mandalay Bay Hotel gave Las Vegas Route 91 concert killer a free luxury suite that usually cost nearly $600 a night and allowed him to move his luggage containing a vast arsenal in the service elevators. He killed fifty-eight and wounded more than 800 people.
  16. Christina Taylor-Green, the nine-year-old victim killed in the Tucson massacre was the granddaughter of former baseball manager and player, Dallas Green. Green managed the New Yankees and other teams in the 1970’s-1990’s.
  17. Newspaper reporters at the Capital Gazette massacre in Maryland had the difficult assignment of having to write about a shooting they themselves witnessed, one that claimed the lives of their colleagues.
  18. In preparation for the massacre the Columbine killers stored in their bedroom closets the bombs they built and used in the massacre.
  19. After a fatal shooting at Red Lake High School, which is located on the Reservation of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the Tribe used donations to help pay for the funeral of the shooter. That payment is unprecedented.
  20. The phrase “going postal” is believed to have been originated as a result of the 1986 massacre in Edmond, Oklahoma where a postal employee went on a workplace rampage, killing fourteen and injuring 7. The employee, a former Marine, received a series of negative performance reviews and was reprimanded earlier in the day before the killings. One of the victims of the massacre was the thirty-three-year-old Mike Rockne, grandson of Knute Rockne, the legendary Notre Dame football coach.

[James D. Diamond’s 2019 book, After The Bloodbath: IS Healing Possible In The Wake of Rampage Shootings is now available from the publisher, MSU Press  from your local bookstore, and all major digital booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. ]

“Where Angels Play:” Emilie’s Shady Spot

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Children play as playground opens in New London Connecticut, November 17, 2013. Photo, YouTube

(This post was originally appeared in The Huffington Post on December 13 2017 and was updated in 2019).

They would be 13 or 14 years old now, and in the eighth grade. Maybe they’d be learning in school about American history and slavery and reading the novel Lord of the Flies. But those 20 innocent schoolchildren never made it out of first grade.

It’s been nearly seven years since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The bloodshed attributed to rampage shootings continues at a frenetic pace; to my count there have been more than 30 mass shootings since that unspeakable tragedy. While progress is being made in some related fields—school safety and neurological medical research, for example—the sheer number of incidents and innocent lives lost is so painful that whatever steps forward we are able to take get lost in a tsunami of profound sadness and regression. Sometimes it’s all we can do to brace ourselves for the next.

Rampage murders bear a striking resemblance to another American crisis—that of suicide. In most cases that’s what a rampage is. The murderers know they’ll be killed and often kill themselves before police can. That’s exactly what the Newtown killer did. Suicide is so preventable, but it is now the 10th-most common cause of death in the U.S. and, relevant to rampages, the second highest cause of death among young people. The most notable and striking difference between the rampage and most suicides is the rampager also kills many innocent people.

The motives of rampage killers like the Newtown murderer or the 2017 Las Vegas killer are unknown. Perhaps there’s something to be learned from the rare rampager who survives, like the killer in Aurora, Colorado (the 2012 “Dark Knight” theater massacre), or Tucson, Arizona (the 2011 “Congress on Your Corner” massacre).

There is persuasive evidence that rampage killers study the rampagers who came before them, even obsess about them, as the Newtown killer did. They try to outdo their predecessors and achieve a notoriety in death that was unachievable in life. On that point, I believe it would be a significant step toward progress if major news media stopped using killers’ names (as I did here), stopped publishing their pictures, ignored their rants and stopped declaring their murders as “the deadliest.” Why award bloodthirsty murderers with titles and achievements, like trophies on a mantel? The more we make these killers famous, the more we are assuring that there will be someone (or multiple someones) intent on breaking these “records” of infamy.

I went to a very moving ceremony a few years ago to honor the memory of Emilie Parker, one of the little angels murdered in Newtown. The ceremony was the opening of a playground in New London, Connecticut. It’s called “Emilie’s Shady Spot,” a lovely, playful, cheerful, pink playground, with pictures of butterflies. The playground was one of 26 built by a group of New Jersey firefighters and paid for by generous donations. Playing on the sparkling new equipment, the children were running, climbing and playing with bright smiles on their faces. I heard laughter. I fought back tears. More than 200 other people in attendance also fought back tears that morning. Sometimes it seems that’s all a person can do. Or is it? How many more playgrounds have to be built?

[James D. Diamond’s 2019 book, After The Bloodbath: IS Healing Possible In The Wake of Rampage Shootings is now available from the publisher, MSU Press  from your local bookstore, and all major digital booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. ]

Will California Execute A Native American Female Mass Shooter?

Cherie Lash-Rhoades murdered four people and critically injured two others in a 2014 shooting spree in the tribal headquarters of the Cedarville Rancheria, a small American Indian tribe in Northern California. It all happened during a meeting at the Alturas headquarters where tribal leaders were discussing the banishment of Lash-Rhoades. Lash-Rhoades was tried in Modoc County, California, and sentenced to death by Judge Candace Beason on Feb. 20, 2014, for killing her brother Rurik Davis, 50, her niece Angel Penn, 19, her nephew Glenn Calonicco, 30 and Sheila Russo, 47, the tribal administrator who handled tribal evictions.

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Cherie Lash-Rhoades 

Lash-Rhoades is awaiting execution at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowville, California, where there are 21 women awaiting execution. But Lash-Rhoades and the other women are among the nearly 750 inmates who have been sentenced to death in California, and California has not executed any inmates since 1992. The status of the death penalty in the state is complicated by a series of voter propositions affirming it, while Gov. Gavin Newsome has imposed a moratorium on executions.

Lash-Rhoades was chairman of the small tribe, a tribe embroiled in a leadership dispute involving her own family, which led to an accusation that she had stolen more than $60,000 in tribal funds. Those allegations led to an eviction, and Lash-Rhoades came to the tribal headquarters where a hearing about the eviction was scheduled. Instead of a hearing, what followed was a harrowing murder spree.

Her conviction will be appealed to the California Supreme Court—an automatic appeal under California law. If her case is like other capital litigation, it is likely the appeal will languish for decades. California’s death row is the largest in the United States and likely the largest in the Western hemisphere.

The Cedarville Rancheria rampage killing should be viewed in the context of a disturbing move, largely on the West Coast of the U.S., where tribes are disenrolling thousands of their citizens. I wrote about the crisis in a friend of the court brief with the United States Supreme Court in the case of Aguayo v. Jewell where I explored the profound psychological impact tribal disenrollment has on native self-esteem. In that brief, I wrote: “Disenrollment thus perpetuates historical trauma by creating a loss of community, culture, tradition and identity that is associated with historical loss. Historic loss has been strongly associated with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and poly-drug use in Native youth.”

Disenrollment is thorny legal and political matter that poses civil rights squarely against the imperatives of native sovereignty. My colleagues Gabriel Galanda and Ryan Dreveskratch wrote a groundbreaking and expansive law review article on the subject in the Arizona Law Review: “Curing the Tribal Disenrollment Epidemic, in Search of a Remedy. 

Mass shootings on American Indian reservations are exceedingly uncommon. In light of the death penalty political turbulence in California, and its reluctance to execute anyone, is it possible it will ever execute a woman killer who is an indigenous Native American?

 

 

 

Parents of Mass Shooters Say They’re Sorry: It’s the Least They Can Do

He didn’t say much, but he wasted no time. The day after Sediqque M’s son committed a brutal massacre at an Orlando nightclub, leaving an astounding 49 people dead, the father of the murderer immediately surfaced and apologized:

“I am really sorry and have expressed this to the people of the United States, especially in this holy month of Ramadan. What he has done has shocked me … I ask God for help and guidance.

 He added:

“Those people who lost their loved ones, they are my family. I am as sad and as mad as you guys are. I’m very, very mad.”

I don’t know anything about the man’s politics, what kind of father he was, if he made other inflammatory statements, took questionable actions. The man deserves credit, though, for immediately coming forward. It’s not how the parents of rampage shooters used to act.

What will the reaction be from surviving victims, or those struggling to survive devastating injuries? What about the reaction from the scores of grieving family members of those young men and women whose lives his son tragically cut short?

Some will simply ignore him as inconsequential and meaningless as they cope with despair. Others may react with anger. Still others might find some quiet measure of appreciation, if not now, eventually. The victims, the survivors, in fact the world, cries out with one simple question: Why? What did my son or daughter, my sister or brother, do to deserve this? Why did your son take them away from me? What were their last words? What made your son act in this barbaric fashion?

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One thing Sediqque’s expression of sorrow, shock and anger was not: silence. Silence has been the default position taken by the parents of rampaging murderers in the past. The disbelief expressed by Sediqque is common. It is common that parents of rampagers cannot fathom their children could be capable of the unimaginable carnage they unleash. Parents are blindsided by the event and are simultaneously engulfed with an international media tidal wave. Police in arrive in SWAT gear and forcibly remove them from their homes, interrogate them as suspects: What did they know about their child’s plans and how did their child obtain weapons? The media camp out on their lawns, visit their employers, family members and friends. The images of their children and themselves are plastered on the television, newspapers and web and in infamy.

If their child is dead, as if so often the case, the parents, too, are in mourning. They have to figure out what to do with the dead body. Funerals and burials are difficult, or impossible, for fear of vandalism. The parents are blamed, vilified, hated. They receive death threats.

Expecting lawsuits and even possible arrest, parents huddle with lawyers. Lawyers advise silence. Statements made could be used against parents in big multimillion-dollar lawsuits, which in the United States, will no doubt follow. Statements might be used by criminal prosecutors looking to charge somebody, anybody, with “aiding and abetting,” as an accomplice for criminal liability or failure to prevent a crime, something called “misprision.” For lawyers, silence helps shield clients.

Parental apologies seem to have started in the age of Columbine. Prior to Columbine, parents often maintained silence, as did the parents of the 14-year-old boy who, in 1997 killed three classmates in a school prayer circle at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. And in late 1999 when the parents of mass shooters made a statement, it came after a few days and great deliberation with attorneys. The statements were typically written and released by parents’ attorneys. An example is the brief statement released by the lawyer for the parents of one of the Columbine High School murderers:

“Wayne and Kathy … have been devastated by what their son … did.” They continue to grieve for all of the victims and their families. “Hopefully, there will come a time when they feel they are ready to speak publicly about their son and the horrible acts that he committed. But now is just not that time.”

Sediqque’s brief but immediate apology is more common today. It’s how most parents now react. In 2013, for example, a mother held an impromptu press conference in her Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment the day after her son murdered 12 innocent people at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. She stood in her living room and, with clergy standing beside her, read a brief apology, concluding that she was glad in her son’s death he could “no longer do harm to anyone.” Her words were preferable to the deafening silence of bygone eras, and there are countless examples of this newer trend.

A second development, much rarer but even more remarkable, is parents of shooters conducting private meetings with parents of victims. One such meeting occurred in 2013 following the Sandy Hook elementary school tragedy where the father of the shooter met privately with grieving parents of one of his 6-year-old victims. Another such meeting between parents occurred between two fathers in 2014 near Los Angeles. Meetings such as these offer the slightest possibility of making sense of the senseless.

Experts like psychiatrist Aaron Lazare say apologies are “a validation of another person’s feelings, intuition and perception,” and, when sincere, are an important component of the healing process. The apology, he wrote in 2004, “is a method of social healing that has grown in importance as our way of living together on this planet undergoes radical change.” Radical change, indeed.

The meetings, the prompt expressions of apology and remorse like the one uttered by Sediqque don’t bring back the dead. But they just might help the living live another day.

 

Should People Who Fail to Stop Rampage Shooters Be Arrested?

This column first appeared in The Danbury Newstimes Nov. 22, 2015

 

For nearly two months, Joey Meek sat in solitary confinement in a South Carolina jail cell. Meek, 21 years old, is a friend of Dylann Roof, the accused rampage murderer facing capital murder charges for the nine racially motivated murders committed this summer at the AME Baptist Church in Charleston.

 

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Dylann Roof

In September, Meek was indicted on federal felony charges. The United States Attorney, a federal prosecutor, says Meek had actual knowledge of Roof’s murderous plans and failed to take any action to warn authorities. That charge, “Misprision of a Felony,” is a fairly rare and archaic crime. The second charge filed against Meek is that he made a false statement to the FBI. The federal prosecutor says, after the massacre, when the FBI asked Meek if he knew the specifics of Roof’s plans to shoot people at the church, Meek said he did not. For those two charges, Meek himself faces two serious federal felonies, many potential years in federal prison and sat in solitary confinement unable to make bond until last week. Meek was released recently on a reduced bond while his case continues to work its way through the federal court.

A few family members of the victims of Roof’s massacre opposed reduction of Meek’s bond and his pre-trial release by federal Magistrate Shiva Hodge. In effect, Meek has become a scapegoat for the anger and rage that Roof, no doubt, deserves. But how much blame should be focused on Meek? Meek, a childhood friend of Roof’s, let Roof sleep on the floor of the Lexington, South Carolina, trailer he lived in.

To Meek’s credit, after seeing news reports of the church tragedy, upon seeing Roof’s picture on television and recognizing him, Meek immediately called the police. When interviewed, he told the FBI that in the days preceding the massacre he was with Roof when Roof got drunk and went on a racial tirade, saying he was going to “do something crazy.” Joey Meeks and his girlfriend took away Roof’s gun and hid it from him. They returned the gun to Roof the next day, saying they didn’t take his drunken rant seriously.

In opposing Meek’s bond reduction and release it is easy to sympathize with the emotional response of the victims; if anything could have been done to spare the lives of their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters they believe it should have been done. But is Meek the right target of their anger and frustration?

Joey Meek is hardly the first non-shooter to be arrested in the aftermath of a rampage shooting. Police often make arrests of people they claim gave any help to the rampager. What makes the arrest of Joey Meek so unusual is that his isn’t an arrest for assisting a rampager, but for failing to take action to prevent it. There are always warning signs before rampage massacres are committed, warnings sometimes signaled to family members, friends, school officials, police or mental healthcare givers. Knowing when to take the warnings seriously is a significant challenge, even for trained, skilled professionals. For non-professionals it’s even trickier. For a 21-year-old high school dropout, should it be criminal?

In the wake of the rampage shooting epidemic, several states, like Connecticut, Indiana, Texas and California, have passed laws to allow for expedited seizure of guns from people who pose a threat to public safety. But even where those laws exist, somebody has to become aware of the threat and know when to take it seriously. If they report the danger, the case quickly goes to court where a judge holds a restraining order hearing, but the threat has to meet legal standards for action to be taken against the purported dangerous person.

Mental health scholars confirm the difficulty in predicting violent behavior. “On the face of it,” says Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a medical sociologist at the Duke University School of Medicine, “a mass shooting is the product of a disordered mental process. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist: What normal person would go out and shoot a bunch of strangers? But the risk factors for a mass shooting are shared by a lot of people who aren’t going to do it. If you paint the picture of a young, isolated, delusional young man―that probably describes thousands of other young men.”

Fueling the emotions expressed by family members toward Meek, Morris or Jourdain—anybody associated with a rampage or rampager—is not simply a desire to see somebody punished. They often cry out for any scintilla of information of how or why their loved ones died. They cry out in pain to make sense of a senseless killing. Having a conversation with somebody like Meek would be a positive step toward the individual or community healing that needs to occur after a mass murder rampage.

The United States Attorney prosecuting Meek may be pursuing a strategy of applying pressure on Meek to get him to help state and federal prosecutors make their cases in court against Roof, who faces the possibility of capital punishment. Arresting, prosecuting or imprisoning Meek makes any conversation or contribution to community healing much less likely.

 

Even Mass Murderers Have Mothers and Fathers

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This column first appeared in The Arizona Daily Star on Sept. 8, 2015.

In some ways, mass murderers are no different than you and me: At some point, everyone had a mother and a father. And, as difficult as it is to imagine, if somehow our lives took an awful turn and we did something truly heinous, we’d like to hope our parents would be in our corner doing anything and everything they could for us.

Last month in Centennial, Colorado, a jury faced one of the most onerous tasks society asks of its citizens. The townspeople in Colorado had to decide whether it was life or death for James Holmes, deciding upon a sentence of life without a chance of parole release or the death penalty. That same jury of 12 found Holmes guilty of 24 counts of first-degree murder and 140 counts of attempted murder for the July 2012 killing of 12 innocent people and injuries to 70 more. Holmes opened fire at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater showing of The Dark Knight Rises. 

Following the guilty verdict, the jury heard evidence during the sentencing phase of the trial. Among the many witnesses called to the stand were both of Holmes’ parents, Robert and Arlene Holmes. With that one glaring exception of having a son who went on a monstrous, blood-curdling rampage, Robert and Arlene aren’t too different from the rest of the population of American parents. The father, Robert, is a senior scientist at FICO, the company that calculates consumer credit scores. He is a mathematician with degrees from some of the finest institutions in the U.S.—Stanford, Berkeley and U.C.L.A. The mother, Arlene, is a registered nurse. The couple have a home in suburban San Diego, California, where they attend a local Lutheran church.

 

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Robert and Arlene Holmes Appearing In Court

 

Robert Holmes came to court nearly every day to attend his son’s trial. He sat in a courtroom where he was probably not particularly welcomed with open arms. He sat among the dozens of grieving survivors of the innocent people his son murdered, other parents, children, brothers and sisters. He sat among the scarred and the severely wounded. Yet, he came. When called, he took the stand to try to save his son’s life. He told of his son’s near idyllic early childhood in Castroville, California. James did exceptionally well in school, played soccer and was always surrounded by a pack of friends. The elder Holmes told of a history of mental illness in his own family, but never suspected his son had an illness. Although it does not appear that James Holmes wants a relationship with his father at this time, Robert Holmes was asked if he still loved James, as if to suggest that the enormity of the bloodshed caused by the son had changed the way a father felt about his child. “Yes, I do,” he said. “Why?” asked James’ lawyer. “Because he’s my son,” he answered.

One of the parents sitting in the courtroom with Robert and Arlene Holmes was Ashley Moser. The prosecutors saved her heart-wrenching testimony for last, and strategically, it’ s easy to understand why they did. Moser, eight weeks pregnant at the time, was watching the movie with her 6-year-old daughter, Veronica, when James Holmes’ massacre took place. Moser reached for her daughter’s hand, but she felt it slip away. Of the 76 shots fired by Holmes from three guns, Moser was struck three times, and fell on top of her daughter. Veronica was struck by four bullets and was killed, and Moser suffered a miscarriage. Left paralyzed for life, a bullet still lodged in her back, she moved about the courtroom in a wheelchair, testifying in the courtroom as James Holmes and his family watched and listened.

Holmes’ mother testified on her son’s behalf. Looking back on things, Arlene Holmes said she could now see how her son changed when he became an adolescent, after they moved from Northern California to San Diego. Once a fast and athletic soccer player, he became uncoordinated and spent most of his free time playing cards and video games. She took him for counseling when he became depressed, but she never suspected he was mentally ill. He isolated himself but didn’t get into trouble and got good grades, she said. “I thought I had a good kid,” she testified.

I remember a client I once represented whose mother also thought she had a good kid, stuck with her son after he committed a vicious stranger-abduction rape. After he was convicted and sentenced to consecutive sentences totaling 35 years, she said something only a naïve but loving mother could say: “Thirty-five years? That’s a murder sentence, and he didn’t kill her.” Parents defend children, even when they commit atrocities.

By the time James Holmes was 24 and committed a murderous rampage, his parents had no idea he was suffering from schizophrenia or was homicidal. Yet several witnesses on both the prosecution and defense sides agreed that at the time of the murders their son suffered from schizophrenia and was mentally ill. Prior to the trial, nobody ever disclosed Holmes’ condition to the parents. Obviously, Holmes spiraled downward and spiraled fast.

With a different verdict, Holmes would be facing execution now. Holmes gets to live the rest of his days in a Colorado prison. His father says he will visit him. “Jimmy was always really an excellent kid,” the father testified. We’d all like to think our parents would continue to stand by us like that, even in the face of temptation to join the justifiably angry public, the victims who so often and understandably cannot do anything but express anger and frequent hatred at their children.

Holmes’ father still calls his son Jimmy. Just like my dad always did.

The Images Of Rampage Killers Make A Difference

A photo can make a huge difference in forming public opinion. James E. Holmes is on trial for the rampage murders at the Aurora Colorado movie theater in July of 2012. Holmes was recently convicted of the murder of 12 people and the injuries to at least 70 others. A Centennial, Colorado jury is deliberating now on his fate and deciding whether he will face the death penalty. Holmes’ defense team have put forward an insanity defense, a defense proven extremely hard to prevail with American juries.

Many Americans have repeatedly seen several photographs of Holmes. In one set of popular photos, taken in court, Holmes has bright red died hair and a wide eyed look. He has a scary appearance. Here is one such recent court photograph of Holmes:

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James Holmes Appears In Court (Photo by RJ Sangosti/Getty)

And here is another photograph with wide circulation of James Holmes, his police mug shot. He has shorter hair, but still a somewhat frightening appearance:

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James Holmes’ mug shot. (AFP Photo / Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office)

One wonders, though, if public opinion of Holmes would be affected if older photos of Holmes were chosen for mass exposure by the news media. You see, before going on his horrible, blood curdling rampage, Holmes appears to have led a normal suburban life. That is not to suggest that Holmes did not display evidence of mental illness; experts have been debating that in court over the last few weeks. Holmes, though, was an honors high school student and an extremely high achieving college student as well. Holmes graduated from Westview High School in the Torrey Highlands community of San Diego, where he played soccer and ran cross-country track.

Holmes studied neuroscience from The University of California/Riverside, graduating with high honors and a 3.95 GPA. He was enrolled in a PhD program.

Take a look at Holmes’  high school yearbook photo, taken just six years before his rampage. There’s a good chance you’ve never seen this photo on the evening news or your local newspaper; I know I had not:

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James E. Holmes 2006 High School Yearbook Photo (Photo courtesy of The Daily News).

What a startling difference, right? If this was the photograph plastered all over CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the New York Times, do you think America would have a different image of Holmes? How many people are aware of his high achieving childhood of relatively normal youth? What happened to this young man in the six years from his suburban California high school graduation to 2012 when he shot 70 innocent people?  The experts agree he suffered from schizophrenia.

The images are revealing.

(Note: Jim blogs about Rampage murders for the Huffington Post.)